County cricket? Who cares?

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Sometime over the coming days, a calculation involving bonus points will formally make Warwickshire the 2004 county cricket champions. It may even happen on Monday (I am assured by one of the handful of people who understand the insanely complex maths) if Middlesex beat Sussex at Hove.

Celebrations are likely to be muted. Indeed, should the Villa reserve left-back have a mild hamstring twinge on Monday morning, the cricket may not make the back page of the Birmingham Evening Mail.

In a way, 'twas ever thus: it has never mattered that much who has won the County Championship, and lately (barring the romantic blip of Sussex's first ever title last year) the decline has merely gathered a little pace. But this year - the England team's most resonant season since Botham's Ashes in 1981 - county cricket has gone from the dilapidated to the desperate.

While England have been winning game after game, playing cricket that has often been thrilling as well as effective, Warwickshire will win the title despite having won only one match in the past three months. They are beneficiaries of a points system that has elevated the turgid four-day draw into the highest form of endeavour. County cricket has been largely unwatched for half a century; it is now finally unwatchable. It is not even possible to follow the game properly from a distance. With separate divisional set-ups for Championship and one-day cricket, only an obsessive can know who is where for what.

No one knows who plays for whom either. More than 60 official overseas players have appeared for the 18 counties this season, sometimes only turning out for a few days at a time. These are in addition to all the Aussies with EU-born grannies, and those who have found the loophole pioneered by a Slovak handball player, Maros Kolpak, extending EU employment rights to countries with EU trade agreements. And no one knows who plays when. Last week eight county matches started on five different days, all except the obvious one, Bank Holiday Monday. It is a total shambles.

This would not matter if the system were fulfilling its main obligation and providing the players to fuel England's continued success. The fact that players like Andrew Strauss, Robert Key and Ian Bell have bridged the chasm from the county game to the Test team is being cited as proof that everything is working fine, and that the First Division of the Championship is turning into an elite breeding ground for international cricket.

I sense these three came through despite the system not because of it, and that unless the problems are addressed, the English cricket renaissance will be a brief one. Take central contracts, the system whereby the core international players are taken out of their county's control and handed over to England, who pay their salaries, and decide if and when they can play for anyone else. Duncan Fletcher, the England coach, takes those decisions, and the answer is “hardly ever”.

Andrew Flintoff should be a local hero, as well as a national one. But he has actually played just two Twenty20 games for Lancashire all season, and they were lucky to have him for those. What do Lancashire get as reward for discovering and nurturing at considerable expense the most charismatic English cricketer in a generation? Not a bean.

At the same time counties are under more pressure to succeed than ever before. Finishing seventh in the Championship used to constitute a respectable season. Now it means relegation to the Second Division. The pressure is therefore not to develop great cricketers, but middling good ones who turn up and do a job for their county. Better still, don't develop at all: hire a Kolpak.

“I think the counties should be compensated for producing England players. And I think it should be up to £100,000 a year,” says Jim Cumbes, the Lancashire chief executive. “That money could go in to youth cricket so we can produce more players for England.”

Something like that has to happen. But Cumbes suspects it will be half-hearted and fail to offer proper incentives. That would be typical: Warwickshire, as champions, will only win £105,000 to be shared among the entire squad. Instead, the cash generated by the England team is being handed to the airlines to fly in more and more foreign players to play in a dreary and incomprehensible competition in danger of undermining the international success it should be supporting.

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